Bridging the gap between industrial and fundamental research
Solvay entertains close ties with the world of academic research
A strong believer in the virtues of open innovation, Solvay frequently engages in collaborations for research & development with partners of all sorts. One central aspect of this is the Group’s extensive work with the academic world on a global scale.
As the founder of a company whose activity was entirely based on science, Ernest Solvay fully understood the importance of keeping close ties with fundamental research. He was applying that principle when he put together the famous Solvay conferences on physics and chemistry, gathering the most brilliant scientific minds of the early 20th century, or when he personally sponsored the research projects of certain scientists.
Today, the Solvay group pursues this long-standing tradition by fostering intensive connections with the academic world, through collaborations with universities and research organizations around the world. As November 2019 marks the 80th anniversary of CNRS – the French public research institution that has been a partner of Solvay for over three decades – as well as the visit to the Group’s headquarters of the president of the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) – the Japanese technological institute with whom a new partnership was recently launched – now is as good a time as any to give an overview of Solvay’s strong connections with academia. And as the person who is in charge of initiating them, Patrick Maestro, the Group’s Scientific Director, is the perfect guide for this international tour.
Innovation is better together
Has working with fundamental research organizations always been a big part of Solvay’s open innovation policy?
Patrick Maestro: Absolutely, but it’s important to keep in mind that what we call ‘open innovation’ extends beyond our relations with academia. Solvay collaborates with customers, startups and even competitors in order to move forward and innovate together, because no one can claim to be able to do everything alone. As for our relations with the academic world, they are a historical legacy. Working with theoretical researchers has always been in Solvay’s DNA, because we know that science is fundamental to develop knowledge within our teams and to identify the areas where the potential for innovation resides. In terms of research, the academic world is always one step ahead of us, by nature.
So it’s about finding new areas of business, new products and solutions…?
P.M.: Yes, that is our priority, but it’s not just about that. Working with academic research has several other benefits, for example training young researchers who often eventually join Solvay. It gives us access to a pool of some of the world’s brightest students, and therefore represents an important resource of key skills and talent for Solvay. These partnerships are also great for titillating our own in-house researchers. The constant influx of new ideas and new people is a strong source of motivation for them.
These strong ties with the academic world are specific to Solvay, or does everyone do it?
P.M.: Solvay has one great advantage: we’re recognized in the academic world as a serious and credible scientific partner, not just an industrial player with financial capacities. Mutual respect is a fundamental element in this field. Our reputation gives us access to the greatest scientists of our times, who come to our labs, evaluate our projects and share ideas. All this is very important in the long-term for the future of Solvay, but also for our current projects and developments. Ben Feringa for example (the Dutch organic chemist who won the Solvay Prize before he went on to receive a Nobel in 2016) is a frequent visitor. I invited him to join our Scientific Advisory Board, and he gets into passionate discussions with us and our researchers. It’s not only motivating for them but also encourages them to push their limits. Contrary to what people might think, most of these high level scientists enjoy sharing their ideas and knowledge with the industrial world. And when you put industrial researchers and academic researchers together, it creates a strong emulation, because they share the same passion.
It’s by working on skills over the long-term with academic partners that we can also support our short-term business objectives.
An international network of collaborations
Can you explain how Solvay concretely partners with research labs?
P.M.: There are different collaboration models. The simplest is a research contract on a specific subject with a specific lab. Sometimes we upgrade that to longer contracts, typically three years, which enable us to work on a specific subject but also on our overall level of expertise, for example on polymers or materials science. Then the most extensive form of collaboration is long-term partnerships with carefully chosen institutions such as EPFL in Switzerland, AIST in Japan or, hopefully soon, with the University of Chicago, where we have identified labs that are on the forefront of research on subjects that interest us. Overall, we try to ensure our partnerships match Solvay’s main focus areas: materials, chemicals and solutions (Solvay’s “GROW” strategic priorities), as well as key competencies in materials science, soft matter, catalysis, etc. In every instance, personal relations matter a lot: there has to be a good fit between our teams.
The most extensive of Solvay’s partnerships is with the CNRS. What does it entail exactly?
P.M.: Well, we have created four joint labs with them, where Solvay research teams and CNRS researchers work together on specific subjects, physically in the same building. In Lyon (France) they work on materials science, in Bordeaux (France) on microfluidics and high throughput screening, in Shanghai (China) on organic chemistry and in Bristol, Pennsylvania (USA) on advanced formulations. This is our most advanced and broadest form of collaboration, since it’s with an entire organization, not just one lab. It’s the result of 30 years of work together, since Rhodia, now part of the Solvay Group, initiated a framework agreement with what is France’s main research institution.
As mentioned above, Ryoji Chubachi, the president of Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), is visiting Solvay’s headquarters. Can you tell us about the partnership initiated with this institution?
P.M.: It was signed just a few months ago, and things have been moving forward quickly. Solvay is the only non-Japanese industrial player to have entered such a relation with them. I can’t say too much, but we currently have two projects we are working on, and they are doing very well. The way it usually works is that we present our partners with a challenge where we need skills and tools we don’t possess internally. But we also listen to what they have to suggest: they can propose subjects to work on together. We had identified a strong complementarity in terms of skills between Solvay and AIST, for instance in the field of specialty chemicals synthesis in order to reduce CO2 emissions and improve resource efficiency. It’s the same partnership model as with EPFL in Lausanne, with whom we work on projects related to modeling and predictive tools.
Working hand-in-hand with a key industrial player like Solvay is a unique opportunity to push the boundaries of innovation further. Our visit of Solvay's new Material Science Application Center in Brussels, a hub for customer-centricity and state-of-the-art thermoplastic composites innovation, has been a great occasion to exchange about our mutual interest in developing sustainable solutions that can help reduce CO2 emissions and improve resource efficiency thanks to science.
What are some of the other main universities and institutes Solvay is currently involved with?
P.M.: Well, for instance, we’ve had a partnership going on with Stanford University for a couple of years, and we’re currently in talks with the University of Chicago, where there seems to be a perfect fit with what we are aiming to do in the field of energy. In Asia, we have a research center working, among other things, on the battery of the future right on the campus of EWHA, the women’s university of Seoul, and of course the E2P2 lab in Shanghai dedicated to sustainable chemistry, together with CNRS and other partners such as the East China University of Science and Technology and the East China Normal University that just joined last week, for which two mirror laboratories were actually created at the universities of Poitiers and Lille (France) to double its resources.
In addition to stimulating its research teams, in what ways does Solvay benefit from these collaborations on a day-to-day basis?
P.M.: On top of finding new talent like I mentioned earlier, I would say that working with these labs enables us to move forward much faster. If we had to build all these various skills and capabilities internally, from scratch, it would take years – or we might not even be able to do it at all. And at the same time, building these collaborations requires long-term vision, which is also in Solvay’s DNA. It’s by working on skills over the long-term that we can also support our short-term business objectives.